Tag: active flexibility

Can My Body Be Strong and Flexible at the Same Time? Yes!

One of the most common misconceptions about training is that you cannot train to be strong and flexible at the same time. This isn’t true. Just watch any luminaries of circus, gymnastics, or yoga and they will demonstrate a gorgeous combination of strength and flexibility, which is necessary in any of those disciplines.

Two woman back to back in standing fron splits

The standing front split is an example of a common pose in contortion and yoga that requires strength and flexibility.

 

The training method that makes this combination possible is active stretching.

Active stretching means using your own muscles to move your body into your end range of motion. It feels more like a strength-building exercise than a traditional stretch sensation.

To learn more, check out “What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Stretching?”.

In a passive stretch, gravity or some other outside force causes the joint to move into a stretch, so no effort is needed. This is very good for lengthening muscle, and done repeatedly over time (recommended to do at least three stretch sessions a week for best results) muscles will accommodate greater and greater ranges.

However the issue with passive stretching alone is that it doesn’t teach your body how to support that new range of motion. An over-emphasis on passive stretching often means that the body is able to achieve positions where no muscles are able to work to support the joint. This can lead to a situation where you achieve flexibility at the cost of your strength.

Of course, the converse is also possible. Muscles build only and exactly how you use them, so if you are lifting weights and doing strength-training exercises in a small range, over time your body will start to be limited to that range and either wont move beyond that range, or will feel unstable and prone to injury when it does. The more strength you build in a limited range, the harder it will be to move outside of this range, thus sacrificing flexibility for strength.

Active flexibility strengthens a muscle through its full range of motion, with a particular emphasis on its shortest position. Muscles can only do two things: shorten or relax. They cannot actively lengthen themselves. That means that the most vulnerable position for a muscle is when it is at its shortest length, helpless.

When we stretch passively, an outside force squishes muscles into shortened positions, and the muscle becomes powerless and possibly very resentful. In an active stretch we only move the joint as far as that muscle is able to contract on its own. Over time, with repetition, the muscles becomes more competent at shortening and the range increases.

Flexibility earned by active methods will almost always be less than passive flexibility. However, active flexibility will be more comfortable, safer, more sustainable over time, stronger, and require less warm up. Active stretching builds strength, awareness, and control of the joint and is a powerful tool to prevent injury, degenerative disease, and chronic pain.

Being strong and flexible isn’t just important for contortionists and gymnasts. It is a component of healthy movement for all of us, keeping our bodies responsive, supple, and able to enjoy the world. The good news is that this type of stretching is available to all bodies at any age or fitness level. It is safe, effective, and can be done with minimal fuss, equipment, and warm-up.

Active stretching can take many forms and levels of challenge and can be applied to any skeletal muscle or joint in the body. It is one of the primary components of our work here at Fit & Bendy. For a super gentle full-body workout using a large number of active stretches, check out this free workout. Other full-length workouts are available through our Video Club or you can get live instruction through our courses and classes.

Happy Bendings!

 

 

What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Flexibility?

There are two different ways that we can measure our flexibility in any joint: active flexibility and passive flexibility. It is important to know the difference between them and how to use them to achieve your flexibility goals.

Active Flexibility

Active flexibility is the amount that we can use our own muscles to move into an end range position.

Active Flexibility Illustration

The active range is how far you can move into a stretch using your own muscles

So if I want to lengthen my hamstrings and the back of my leg, my active flexibility would be the amount that I could use my hip flexors to bring my leg closer to my body without touching it.

 

Active flexibility is the measurement of the shortened muscles’ ability to contract when it gets very short, which can be very challenging at first. Often active stretching doesn’t feel like a traditional stretch, it feels more like a strength exercise. Most of us aren’t used to strengthening our joints at our end range.

Active flexibility is essential for building strength and flexibility together, and keeping our joints stable. It’s important for addressing alignment, and correcting muscle imbalances that could be causing chronic tightness. It is also valuable for preventing injuries and making sure that our flexibility is helpful and useful for our chosen activities.

 

Passive Flexibility

Passive flexibility is the amount that we can move into an end range with help from an external force, whether it’s pulling with a strap, pushing from a coach, or gravity pressing us to the floor as it does in a split.

Drawing showing that passive flexibility is greater than active flexibility

Passive flexibility, using help to stretch, will almost always be greater than active flexibility.

 

 

To find my passive flexibility in my hamstrings/back of the leg, I would pull gently on my leg with my hands or a yoga strap, or have a knowledgeable coach push the leg into a deeper stretch.

Passive flexibility means that the resting length of your muscles and connective tissues is longer, and that your nervous system is comfortable with a larger range of motion. Passive stretching will increase those two factors and facilitate a feeling of relaxation and decreased pain.

Finding the Balance

It is very important to find the proper balance between active and passive stretching for your body and your goals. Passive stretching is often over-emphasized because it is better-known. Too much passive stretching can create unstable joints, less useful flexibility, and possibly injury, especially in hypermobile people.

If you are experiencing joint pain, difficulty with strength movements, or you are struggling to make any progress in your flexibility quest you may not be doing enough active stretching.

If there is a very big difference between your active and passive flexibility in any particular joint, incorporate more active exercises to decrease that difference. You will always have more passive flexibility than active flexibility, but it is our goal to minimize the difference in order to ensure the health of our joints and prevent injury.  FaB courses and Video on Demand service offer a variety of workouts combining the many approaches to stretching for optimal results.

 

Important Factoids about Active vs Passive Flexibility

1. Don’t let the name fool you, passive flexibility isn’t all about relaxation. When you are in a passive stretch you still need to engage your supporting muscles to hold your form. It is extremely rare that you want to be completely relaxed in a stretch as this can compromise your joint alignment and you may miss the tightest muscles that really need the stretch.

2. When it comes to passive stretching, more pressure does not mean more progress. Unless you are extremely muscled you don’t want to be pushing super hard on your stretches. Light to medium pressure is sufficient in almost all cases and more pressure can just cause tears and strains.

3. One of the reasons that active flexibility is so important is that the limiting factor in our flexibility isn’t always the muscle that’s stretching. Sometimes it’s the muscle that’s shortening. So that tightness in bringing your leg to your chest may be the result of hip flexors that don’t want to get shorter! If that is the case, contracting those muscles in an active stretch can be immensely helpful.

4. Active and passive stretching don’t have to be done separately, they can be combined. Play with alternating between the two, adding an active component to a passive stretch, and using movement in your stretches. For lots of ideas on how to do that check out our classes and video library.

Read more about the benefits of different varieties of stretching in this blog post, and check out the video below for all you visual learners who want to see these concepts in action.

Happy Bendings!

Kristina